It is too early to tell whether Egypt and Tunisia will be the harbinger of an Arab spring of democracy. Both could go the way of Eastern Europe in 1989. But they could also be a rehash of Russia in 1917, Egypt in 1952, Iraq in 1958, or Iran in 1979, when the ousting of a hated rulerin favour of a new regime was exploited by dark forces.
But as Egypt goes, so does the Arab world. Jordan, Yemen, and Bahrain are now convulsed by popular unrest; Algeria, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia could be next.
The EU and US should think strategically about how to ride the wave of the current crisis and turn it into an opportunity to promote their interests. Instead, Western leaders are paralysed, rehashing tired old policies that failed long ago and failing to recognise both the danger and the promise of the current turmoil.
All the countries currently affected by popular insurrections are Western allies – pillars of the Middle East's Pax Americana, bulwarks of resistance against radical Islam and allies in the quest for a two-state solution. Throwing Ben Ali and Mubarak to the dogs might have been inevitable – and was certainly the right thing to do, morally. If it was also right strategically, time alone will clarify.
The US's failures pale compared to the EU's. Its embrace of the tyrants was even worse than the US's – until a month ago, Egypt was the EU's most trusted Middle East ally, too. But at the first whiff of popular stirrings, an even broader consensus quickly emerged – embrace democracy and forget our previous cosiness with the local regimes.
Some European senior officials were regular guests of the regimes, all lavish holiday expenses on the Nile or in Djerb, regularly paid for. When President Obama spoke in Cairo in 2009, he at least mentioned democracy and human rights. By contrast, Baroness Ashton's speech, in 2010, at the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo, mentioned freedom only once – Palestinian national freedom. Europe always threw its weight behind the tyrants, never challenging the old Arab nationalist argument that Palestinian independence trumpeted Arab freedoms.
Still, there is a silver lining. Much as the 1989 revolutions proved contagious, so could events in the Arab world today. Iran's courageous democracy seekers are back in the streets, challenging their odious regime; Syria could see its people rise.
Western leaders should not hesitate to stand for freedom – but they should also be clear about their goals and how to pursue them.